He went out again after food. The rain did not seem to be letting up, even slightly. It seemed to be strengthening.
Thunder rumbled, a deep booming sound that seemed to echo in his very marrow. Lightning streaked across the sky.
He sighed. It did not look as if he might be able to continue his journey today. Even if the rain stopped in the next few hours, he would not be able to make it back before sundown.
He did not want to spend the night here. But he knew he had no choices. Travel at night was risky even with a full moon in the best of roads. And he had to traverse a forest path.
He heard the door open and close and a light footstep behind him. He did not turn around, his face became grim. He knew who it was.
“I have no desire to talk to you.” Said he without turning around.
“Please don’t say that,” said Kunti, her voice shaking. She lifted her hand and placed it on his arm. “Please tell me what I should do to win your forgiveness.”
He ignored the hand on his arm. Her touch was so cold it burned him.
“It is not within your power to reverse the clock. But I can promise I shall never conspire against your sons or cause them harm.”
“I did not come to you to ask you anything on their behalf.” Her hand tightened on his arm. “Vasusena! Look at me!”
He turned his head to look at her. Then he straightened, removed her hand from his arm and led her to the carved seat.
He sat down next to her.
“Speak,” said he. “I shall listen to what you have to say.”
She looked at him, her eyes full of yearning that he chose to ignore, though it tugged at a part of him.
“I made a mistake,” her voice was calm, gentle. It was how he had expected death to sound like.
“I cannot undo what I did. I cannot turn back time. I can only make amends.”
“Amends?” He smiled grimly. “What amends can you possibly make now? You were eager to claim me as yours when war came. You were willing to reveal the truth then. What happened to that willingness now? Have you told your sons yet?”
She met his eye. “Why haven’t you?” She countered. “There’s not going to be a war. They are not your enemies. What stops you from telling them the truth?”
“Because I have no desire to claim them as mine!” He spoke the words knowing that they were no longer completely true. But he knew that tie of blood notwithstanding, they would never be his.
“And that is my answer too. Why should I saddle them with an elder brother who cares for them not! Why should I inflict on you the presence of those you hate! You will never love them and they would be left heartbroken.”
“You sound as if they are going to love me,” he did not keep the disbelief out of his voice.
She smiled bitterly, “Not everyone carries grudges as you do.”
“Why are you here then? You know I won’t let go of my grudge so easily!”
“You may hate me. But I love you. I always have. But I too was bound by duty, to my sons, to my husband, to his family. I was not prepared to sacrifice my entire life to claim you. If that makes me selfish, then yes, I am selfish.” She paused. “But I love you, Vasusena. I have loved you from the first moment I ever saw you.”
“So much so that you put me in a box and floated me away,” he paused. “Mother. Is that not what you did?”
“The circumstances were such. And I was but a child.” She paused. Her eyes bored into his. “But you are no child. You are a man. And it is for you to choose whether to forgive a little girl who made a terrible mistake out of fear.”
He said nothing. What was the use? She would never understand. And even now, she was concerned more for his forgiveness than his welfare.
He lowered his eyes and took her hands in his. They were worn, rough and calloused. They were the hands of a woman who had suffered. They were not the hands of a woman who lived in luxury. They were not the hands of a queen. If he were to close his eyes, he would have taken them for his mother’s hands.
He bent down and kissed the rough palms of her hands, one by one.
He dropped her hands and looked into her eyes. Her eyes were swimming in tears. There was joy and longing in her eyes and hope and a whole lot of emotions he could not even name.
“I forgive you,” said he, “But that is all I am prepared to give right now.”
She nodded, her tears spilling out. “I understand. I can wait, my son,”
She rose, lifted his face between her hands and kissed his forehead.
“You will not come inside?”
He shook his head, his forehead still tingling from her kiss.
“Mother,” he whispered to the rain after she had gone inside. He felt cleansed, as if a burden had been lifted from his heart.